Wealthy Romans in Egypt imported monkeys from India to keep as pets

EGYPT – RED SEA COAST – 100-200 BC: The remains of pet monkeys, “sleeping like children”, have been uncovered in an ancient seaport of Egypt on the west coast of the Red Sea founded by Plotemy II in 275 BC. Archaeologists from Warsaw’s University Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology have discovered rhesus macaques and the smaller bonnet macaque both of which are endemic to the Indian subcontinent and adjacent areas, buried at this ancient seaport.

Pet monkey kept by affluent Roman Egyptians
Pet monkey kept by affluent Roman Egyptians. mage: Marta Osypińska/Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology of the Polish Academy of Sciences.

They decided that affluent Roman Egyptians imported the monkeys from India as pets. They also decided that the monkeys failed to adapt to the new environment and consequently died young.

They were buried in a very precise way, on their sides with their paws next to their heads. One monkey was covered with a wool cloth. Another had two large shells placed by its head. In all they found 16 monkeys buried among hundreds of dogs and cats. Initially they thought that the monkeys were local species but were surprised to discover that they had been imported over thousands of miles, probably with great difficulty, from as far away as southern India.

The researchers decided that wealthy Roman Egyptians imported the exotic “pets” to brighten up their lives because they were in a far-flung outpost living in the first and second centuries.

Marta Osypiska from the Polish Academy of sciences worked on the project as well and she said that it is a unique finding. Before the discovery nobody had found Indian monkeys in archaeological sites in Africa. And there is no record of it apparently in ancient written documents.

P.S. Macaques are monkeys and strictly speaking not apes.


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